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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"96 Tears": Grounded in its time, or anticipatory of rock's future?

Its sound as as mid-60s as you can get, but its perspective might lend itself to being a forerunner of more contemporary movements.

When it comes to what songs make it on my Senior Year Soundtrack, it usually comes down to one of two things: either a) they fit my mood or current happenings, or b) I just get them stuck in my head for whatever reason, whether or not I even hear them throughout the day.

Holy cow, is today's pick an example of "b." I'm still getting over my trademark early November depression, and I would not have picked this song, let alone its genre, out of a lineup if I wanted to best express how I've been feeling. Instead, I went about my day and on multiple occasions, unprompted, heard the main organ line from "96 Tears." The biggest hit by ? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians, "96 Tears" is a seminal garage rock track, and its angsty lyrics may also be an important launchpad for other movements under the umbrella of rock music.

"96 Tears" is probably the most repetitious song I've covered on this blog. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's more that it just is. It's the nature of the tune, and it isn't all that surprising for a garage-like record. What may be a bit surprising for the sub-genre is just how dominant the organ is throughout the entire tune. Even in tracks where the organ plays the entire time, like the Doors' "Light My Fire," it's typically given a bit more room to breathe and be in the background, with other instruments being more audible on counter-lines. That's not the case for "96 Tears"; while the bass and drums are plenty audible, they occupy different parts of the frequency spectrum, and they are nonetheless less prominent than the organ. Meanwhile, it takes a bit of focused listening to even hear the guitar softly playing chords behind the organ.

Aside from a one-measure introduction, organist Frankie Rodriguez plays two patterns on his Vox Continental, and he takes no more than a single beat to switch between them during the two-chord, two-bar progression. One pattern is the upper structure of the chords themselves, and the other is a short, repeating upward figure. The other instruments have similarly repeating figures, which means that even more attention than normal is given to the vocals. ? (pronounced "Question Mark," real name Rudy Martinez) gives an impassioned performance, in which his energy and angst builds throughout the tune. The crying-based lyrics switch back and forth from being about the narrator ("Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying") to being about his former lover ("And you'll start cryin'"), capturing the turbulence in the immediate aftermath of a falling-out. This emotional rollercoaster is highlighted by a desire for revenge, as the narrator wants his ex to feel his pain and cry those same titular 96 tears.

Why 96? We don't know. Seriously. ? has been asked on multiple occasions, and has said the number has importance to him, but has repeatedly dodged answering to its true meaning. If nothing else, it's a great number to fit the allotted space in the beat, and it's got the right syllabic emphasis without feeling closed off. 44 or 81, for example, don't feel like they flow nearly as well, and even 95 feels like it's missing something with how its pronunciation ends. However ? came to 96 — or however 96 came to him — it just works.

Even though "96 Tears" is unmistakably an early garage rock hit with a healthy dose of 60s psychedelia, I hear other more recent movements beginning to take shape through ?'s performance. The emotional rollercoaster in the context of a breakup makes me think of emo. Meanwhile, the simple form and ?'s repeated taunting and begging to "let me see you cry" at the track's end screams punk to me. Even though neither of those sub-genres began to even remotely take shape until the mid-90s and late 70s, respectively, my familiarity with both movements makes me hear each of them in "96 Tears." I end this article wondering if musicians from those sides of rock similarly hear ? & the Mysterians as anticipating their perspectives.


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